“Sleep on it” is a traditional piece of advice for puzzled people in need of an innovative solution. In recent years, the wisdom of this approach has been validated by science, with one study linking dream-heavy REM sleep with later flashes of insight.
There is no guarantee you’ll awake from a nap with an ending for your novel. But newly published research suggests the odds of such a breakthrough increase if you remind your slumbering self of the pressing issue at hand.
That requires employing a sense that remains alert and functioning even as we sleep: smell.
In a first-of-its-kind study, a research team led by Simone Ritter of the Radboud University Behavioral Science Institute in the Netherlands reports the beneficial effect of sleep on creativity can be enhanced by an evocative scent. It is published in the December issue of the always-stimulating Journal of Sleep Research.
Ritter and her colleagues, including Maarten Bos of Harvard Business School, describe a study featuring 49 participants between the ages of 18 and 29. All arrived at a laboratory in the evening and watched a 10-minute video about volunteer work.
They were then sent to bed as they pondered the problem: How can people be motivated to volunteer more of their time? They were expected to provide some innovative answers first thing in the morning.
For two-thirds of the participants, “a hidden scent diffuser spread an orange-vanilla odor while participants watched the movie and were informed about the creativity task,” the researchers write. Before going to bed, they were given an envelope containing a second scent diffuser, which they were instructed to open before falling asleep.
Half of them were exposed to the same orange-vanilla scent that was in the air when they watched the video. The others were exposed to a different odor. The remaining participants (one-third of the total group) were exposed to no scent, either while sleeping or awake.
The following morning, everyone was given two minutes to list the creative solutions they had come up with. Afterwards, they selected what they felt was their most innovative idea—a task that was included since recognizing good ideas is a key component of creativity.
Two trained raters scored all the ideas on a creativity scale, giving high marks to concepts that were both novel and useful. They found the ideas of those who slept with the orange-vanilla odor were far more innovative than those who had slept with a different scent, or no odor at all.
In addition, those in the orange-vanilla group were much more likely to agree with the raters as to which of their ideas was the most genuinely creative. They were both more innovative and more perceptive regarding which of their innovations was the most promising.
Precisely why the nocturnal odor had this effect is unclear. The researchers suspect that bringing back the smell associated with the film and subsequent instructions activated related concepts in their minds. This provided “a bigger network of possible answers when performing the creativity task the next morning,” they speculate.
“These findings suggest that we do not have to passively wait until we are hit by our creative muse while sleeping,” the researchers conclude. “By applying the right means, we may be able to actively trigger creativity-related processes during sleep.”
This simple and–dare we say–creative idea could be a valuable tool for anyone searching for an innovative edge, from entrepreneurs to Hollywood screenwriters. We can hear the Oscar acceptance speech now: “I’d like to thank my producer, my parents, and most of all, that lemon verbena scented candle.”